Mother Jones


The fall of an empire is supposed to be a dramatic thing. It’s right there in the name. “Fall” conjures up images of fluted temple columns toppling to the ground, pulled down by fur-clad barbarians straining to destroy something beautiful. Savage invasions, crushing battlefield defeats, sacked cities, unlucky rulers put to death: These are the kinds of climaxes we expect from a narrative of rise, decline, and fall.

We’re all creatures of narrative, whether we think explicitly in those terms or not, and stories are one of the fundamental ways in which we engage with and grasp the meaning of the world. It’s natural that we expect the end of a story—the end of an empire—to have some drama.

The reality is far less exciting. Any political unit sound enough to project its power over a large geographic area for centuries has deep structural roots. Those roots can’t be pulled up in a day or even a year. If an empire seems to topple overnight, it’s certain that the conditions that produced the outcome had been present for a long time—suppurating wounds that finally turned septic enough for the patient to succumb to a sudden trauma.

That’s why the banalities matter. When the real issues come up, healthy states, the ones capable of handling and minimizing everyday dysfunction, have a great

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